The 2019 Belgian Grand Prix will go down as one of the more bittersweet weekends in Formula 1’s illustrious history.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took his first (of many, you would imagine), long awaited and popular Formula 1 victory a day after his friend and Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert lost his life after an accident during the feature race of the feeder series on Saturday.
So much happened during this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix: Valterri Bottas’ Mercedes extension announcement, Esteban Ocon’s 2020 Formula 1 return with Renault at Nico Hulkenberg’s expense, Sergio Perez signing (what I personally think from a team perspective) surprising three-year deal, and none of it ultimately matters.
But while the F2 sprint race was cancelled out of respect, the F1 circus had to go on and it went on with a heavy heart.
Being honest, it was a brutal weekend and I honestly just wanted to write something to try take my mind off of what happened.
Thankfully, there is something to talk about…
This weekend marked Alex Albon’s Red Bull debut, which was the big talking point heading into the weekend after replacing Pierre Gasly after a poor run in his Red Bull career.
In these circumstances, I’m not going to say this is a good time to evaluate Albon’s weekend but I’m going to do it anyways because this weekend — as traumatic as it was — could be the first step towards one more seat on the F1 grid being filled.
Let’s start with qualifying.
One of Gasly’s big issues at Red Bull was the qualifying margin to teammate Max Verstappen (nearly half a second), not to mention he was out-qualified 11-1, and that one victory on Saturday for Gasly was at Canada where there was a red-flag situation.
Given Albon’s penalty situation, Red Bull decided not to push him into Q3, so we didn’t get a chance this weekend to see how Albon may have fared against Verstappen in Q3. Monza next week doesn’t offer Red Bull a ton of hope against Mercedes and Ferrari but it’ll be the first instance of Albon having a proper run at Verstappen in qualifying. It won’t be until Singapore — a track Red Bull should go well at — where we get a real sense with Albon in qualifying against the rest of the top six cars.
On Sunday, Albon was tasked with a tall order from P17 on the grid after taking a compliment of penalties for new engine components. It wasn’t most electrifying start for Albon on the medium tyres, his first stint spent largely in a DRS train and was unable didn’t really move the needle. In fact, losing positions to Hulkenberg and Giovinazzi at various points in the first stint.
But with the pitstops came some separation amongst the field and opportunities would arise in the second stint when Albon pitted for the softs.
With the field a little more spread out now and not in one giant DRS train spanning from Kevin Magnussen — and with the Red Bull now being on better rubber — Albon really impressed during the second stint, making multiple overtakes to climb through the field after emerging in P15 after his stop and into the points and eventually finished in P5 to complete a very impressive debut for Red Bull on a difficult afternoon for everyone involved.
One of the criticisms with Gasly’s performances at Red Bull was his lack of willingness to overtake but Albon showed no such fear as he went for the jugular with moves on Lance Stroll into the Bus-Stop chicane and then on Daniel Ricciardo through the No-Name corner. Granted, Ricciardo was on ancient tyres from his Lap 1 adventures and Albon on fresher softs but even still, that’s not a frequent overtaking spot at all, especially around the outside of it.
And then came the last-lap battle with Sergio Perez.
To reach Perez in the first place in the way he did was impressive but then when it came to overtaking him… He had a go firstly at the Bus-Stop chicane which didn’t work out and when Perez intentionally went wide and begged, not invited, begged Albon to go through so that Perez would be the one with the DRS heading up the Kemmel Straight instead of Albon — so that Perez could attack rather than defend — Albon was savvy to it and refused to overtake Perez out of La Source, before taking to the grass up the Kemmel Straight with DRS to seize what would end up being fifth place (and his best finish in F1) after Lando Norris’ last-lap heartbreak.
It was a great end to Albon’s race, in which he displayed determination, good race-craft, wits and ultimately pace to overcome a difficult start where there wasn’t a ton he could do to progress in the DRS train.
“I’ve been very impressed with Alex’s performance all weekend and he put in a great recovery drive from 17th on the grid to finish fifth in his first race with us,” said team principal Christian Horner. “He was pretty cautious during the first half of the race as he felt his way into the Grand Prix, but things started to come alive for him on the softer compound tyre and he put in some great overtakes…”
In what looked like it was going to be a throwaway weekend of sorts for Albon, he salvaged 10 points out of it — the maximum that would’ve possible from where he began the race.
All-in-all, a great debut for Albon, who is still learning the ins-and-outs with his new car.
“I’m very happy. P5 is an amazing result and we’ve got off to a great start,” said Albon post-race. “I had some good fun out there and I enjoyed this race a lot. I started off the weekend very nervous and if you had told me I’d finish the race fifth I’d be very happy, but I’m a bit more relaxed now.
“It was actually a difficult race and in the first stint I struggled with grip in the dirty air and couldn’t overtake anyone. But then once we pitted for the soft tyres, the car came alive and I was like – now we can do something! The last lap was really good, I had a good fight with Sergio where we were both on the grass and it made for some good racing.
“There are definitely some areas I need to improve on and over the next few days I’ll get my head down, do some homework and address them for Monza. I will sit down with the Team and understand why I struggled at the start, but I am still finding out the car’s little tricks and adapting to it. I didn’t really feel too much pressure coming into the weekend, I think the media thought I was going to, but I’ve enjoyed my week with the Team…”